2015 NCAA Bracket Predictions: Best Picks for Every Matchup
There are two ways to go about filling out your bracket for the 2015 NCAA tournament. You can start by picking Kentucky as your national champ, as most of the nation will do, or you can be a hipster and pick someone else.
I'm not going to give away which strategy I went with, but know that I wouldn't be caught dead in skinny jeans.
If you're going with UK, the key is beating everyone else with your picks throughout the rest of the bracket.
My strategy every year is to consume as many games as possible during the season, do my research pre-bracket release, and then go with my gut as soon as the bracket is revealed. There's no magic formula. But there is a process.
What you'll find here is a breakdown of every game and analysis on why I made each pick.
Manhattan over Hampton: Manhattan is the second-best No. 16 seed and better than three No. 15 seeds, according to KenPom.com's ratings. Meanwhile, Hampton is by far the worst team in the bracket.
Robert Morris over North Florida: Two years ago, Robert Morris beat Kentucky in the NIT. That's enough for me to push the Colonials through in the play-in round.
Dayton over Boise State: The Flyers have to like their draw here. They're one of the smallest teams in the field, and they got an opponent that likes to shoot a lot of threes. Oh yeah, and Dayton gets to play this game at home.
BYU over Ole Miss: It takes a focused defensive team to slow BYU's fast-paced attack. The Rebels just lost a game in the SEC tournament by fouling a three-point shooter at the buzzer. They're not that team.
Round of 64, East
Villanova over Lafayette: Lafayette played two games against major-conference schools—at West Virginia and at Kansas—and lost both by 27. Expect a similar result against Villanova.
North Carolina State over LSU: Both teams underachieved this year. On paper, NC State has a top-10 backcourt and LSU has a top-10 frontcourt. Let's say talent is close to even—even though I'd give the Wolfpack a slight advantage—and it comes down to coaching. I give NC State's Mark Gottfried the advantage over Johnny Jones.
Northern Iowa over Wyoming: These are similar teams. Both excel on the defensive end, play slow tempos and are led by star power forwards. It'll be a halfcourt game, and the Panthers are by far the more efficient offense—ranking 15th in KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency compared to 175th for the Cowboys.
Louisville over UC Irvine: Rick Pitino has lost only two games in the round of 64 in his coaching career. This is not one of his best teams and this could be a decent upset pick, but it's just not very logical to bet against Pitino in the opening round.
Providence over Dayton: This is another good matchup for the Flyers, who don't have anyone in their rotation over 6'6". Providence relies heavily on the perimeter duo of Kris Dunn and LaDontae Henton. Only issue for Dayton is those two guys will be the best two players on the floor.
Oklahoma over Albany: OU got upset in the round of 64 last year by North Dakota State. That led the Sooners to focus on defense in the offseason, and a mediocre defensive team turned into one of the best in the country. Long story short, OU's defense isn't allowing a one-and-done exit again.
Michigan State over Georgia: Tom Izzo has his team playing its best basketball of the season, as the Spartans were a possession away from winning the Big Ten tournament. This isn't his most talented team, but Sparty is more talented than the Bulldogs, and I'm not betting against Izzo when he has the better team.
Virginia over Belmont: A No. 16 seed has never beat a No. 1 seed. I'm well aware Virginia is on the 2-line, but Tony Bennett's team has the resume of a No. 1. Go ahead and move the Cavaliers on to the round of 32.
Round of 64, West
Wisconsin over Coastal Carolina: Coastal Carolina has a win over a power-conference school this season, knocking off Auburn on the road on Dec. 5. But Wisconsin isn't Auburn.
Oregon over Oklahoma State: Both of these teams play small ball and both overachieved. Since talent is close to even, I'll go with the team that is hot. Oregon has won 11 of its last 13 games, while OK State has lost six of seven.
Arkansas over Wofford: Wofford's tallest player in its rotation is 6'7". As long as the Razorbacks play through 6'11" SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis, they should win.
North Carolina over Harvard: Harvard has won its round of 64 game two straight years, but that run ends here. The Crimson just aren't as good offensively this season, and the Tar Heels are playing really well on that end right now. Harvard's best chance is to really muck it up and slow the pace. That's hard to do against UNC.
BYU over Xavier: BYU was one of the final teams to get in the bracket, but if the committee had seeded the field based off the final month of the season, a No. 11 seed would have been criminal for the team that won at Gonzaga.
The Cougars are one of the best offensive teams in the country and are extremely hard to guard because of their aggressiveness off the dribble and number of shooters they put on the floor. They have more talent than Xavier and enter the tournament playing better basketball.
Baylor over Georgia State: Georgia State's second-leading scorer, Ryan Harrow, missed the Sun Belt championship game with a hamstring injury. Even if Harrow plays this week, it's hard to believe he'll be 100 percent. The Panthers rely a lot on Harrow and R.J. Hunter to score. If he's not 100 percent, this could turn into a blowout, as they managed only 38 points in their Sun Belt final victory.
Ohio State over VCU: D'Angelo Russell tore up West Virginia's full-court press in a preseason secret-scrimmage win for the Buckeyes. The Rams play a similar style and are not as good as the Mountaineers, especially without point guard Briante Weber, who is out for the season with torn knee ligaments.
Arizona over Texas Southern: Texas Southern played at Indiana, Tennessee, SMU, Baylor, Florida, Gonzaga, Michigan Sate and K-State, knocking off the latter two. Of course, the only team on that list at Arizona's level is Gonzaga. What happened in that one? The Zags won by 40.
Round of 64, Midwest
Kentucky over Manhattan: Manhattan gave Louisville some trouble in the round of 64 last year, but that's not happening here. UK is too big. Too much talent. 'Cats roll.
Purdue over Cincinnati: This game will be won up front as both teams are led by athletic big men—A.J. Hammons for Purdue and Octavius Ellis for Cincy. Hammons is the more talented player, and he'll be the difference for the Boilermakers.
Buffalo over West Virginia: To beat West Virginia, you have to be able to take care of the ball. Buffalo ranks a solid 35th nationally in turnover rate, per KenPom.com. WVU's best player, Juwan Staten, will likely be returning after missing four games with a knee injury, and that's not ideal for the Mountaineers if he isn't 100 percent.
Before the bracket came out, a MAC coach texted me the Bulls could win a game or two in the tourney. I'm buying. Bobby Hurley wins his first-ever tourney game as a coach.
Maryland over Valparaiso: The Terps win games that they should. Four of their six losses came on the road, three of those were to tourney teams and the other was at Illinois. Their only home loss was to Virginia and then a Big Ten tourney loss to Michigan State. See the narrative here? This is a game they should—and will—win.
Texas over Butler: Forget the seeds. The Longhorns should be the favorite here. Butler senior point guard Alex Barlow does not back down from any challenge, but he will have a tough time keeping Isaiah Taylor out of the paint. Both teams are great defensively, but the Horns are more talented. Taylor will be the difference-maker.
Notre Dame over Northeastern: The Irish just took care of Duke and North Carolina to win the ACC tourney, so they should be able to take care of Northeastern. But one thing to keep in mind: This group reminds me of Missouri in 2012, a great offensive team that was coming off a Big 12 tourney title and lost in the opening round to Norfolk State. So beware, Irish.
Wichita State over Indiana: The Shockers are small up front, but the Hoosiers aren't the team to take advantage of that. Wichita State actually plays defense; Indiana does not. An up-and-down game will come down to getting stops down the stretch, and WSU has a clear advantage there.
Kansas over New Mexico State: The Aggies are in the tournament for the fourth straight year, but they've yet to win a tourney game in that stretch. The Jayhawks usually take care of business when they have the talent advantage, as they clearly do here.
Round of 64, South
Duke over Robert Morris: Robert Morris is the team that knocked off Kentucky in the NIT two years ago, and Duke lost to Mercer in the round of 64 last year. Upset alert? No chance.
St. John's over San Diego State: The Aztecs are an excellent defensive team, but they really labor to score the ball. St. John's guards D'Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan will put up enough points to advance.
Utah over Stephen F. Austin: Utah is struggling coming into the tourney—losers of four of the last seven—and this will be a trendy upset pick. But over the course of the season, the Utes have played like one of the 10 best teams in the country. They have one of the nation's best guards, Delon Wright, and one of the nation's best defenses. They're under-seeded as a No. 5, and while this is a really good No. 12 seed, I like the Utes to play more like a No. 2 seed.
Eastern Washington over Georgetown: The Hoyas have lost to double-digit seeds in their last four NCAA tournaments. Eastern Washington's signature win this season was against Indiana, a team that actually closely resembles Eastern Washington's style. The Hoyas also played the Hoosiers this season, winning by four in overtime on a neutral court.
I'm not exactly picking this because of the transitive property, but IU sticking with G'town shows that style can work against John Thompson III's squad. So based off recent history and how the small-ball Eagles play, I like their chances.
SMU over UCLA: The Bruins have no business even being in the field. SMU is by far the best No. 6 seed. Need I say more?
Iowa State over UAB: Fred Hoiberg is 3-0 in the round of 64. This is arguably his best team. The Cyclones aren't losing this one.
Iowa over Davidson: The way to beat the Hawkeyes is to slop it up and slow the pace. That's just not Davidson. This is a bad matchup for the A-10 regular-season champs.
Gonzaga over North Dakota State: The Zags have plenty of experience staying engaged with teams that are not at their level talent-wise. This is one game where playing in the WCC helps Gonzaga.
Round of 32, East
North Carolina State over Villanova: The Wildcats are a really good team, but for the second straight year, they get a really bad draw in the round of 32 against a team that is way more talented than its seeding would suggest. Last year, the 'Cats lost to eventual national champion UConn. This year, they'll go down to another talented backcourt in Cat Barber, Ralston Turner and Trevor Lacey, who roughed up the Blue Devils in Raleigh earlier this season.
Northern Iowa over Louisville: Northern Iowa's defense does an excellent job of keeping opponents out of the paint. You have to be able to knock down outside shots to beat the Panthers, and the Cards are a terrible outside shooting team—they knock down only 30.4 percent of their threes. As long as the Panthers can take care of the ball, I like them to win this game.
Oklahoma over Providence: The team most similar to Oklahoma in the Big East is Villanova. Both rely on perimeter shooting, have good size inside and can really guard. The Friars lost all three meetings with the Wildcats. Boomer Sooner.
Virginia over Michigan State: This is the repeat of last year's Sweet 16 game that Michigan State won by two points. Virginia is close to, if not better, than a year ago. Michigan State has regressed. I like the way Sparty is playing right now, and this would be a decent upset pick. But if the game is close, I'd bet on the Cavaliers, who always seem to execute without nerves in close games.
Round of 32, West
Wisconsin over Oregon: Wisconsin beat Oregon 85-77 on its way to the Final Four last year. Oregon isn't nearly as talented this year as last, and Wisconsin is arguably better. That should add up to an easy win for the Badgers.
North Carolina over Arkansas: The team most similar to Arkansas in the ACC is Louisville. The Heels went 2-1 against the Cards, winning the latest matchup in the ACC tournament. The Heels have their stretches of careless play—troublesome against a team that feasts on mistakes likes the Razorbacks—but they are a good passing team and equipped to handle pressure.
Look for Brice Johnson to have a big game thanks to some easy buckets against the press. He just put up 22 points against Louisville in the ACC quarterfinals.
BYU over Baylor: The Bears are a tough team to play in the postseason because of their zone. It's very unique and hard to prepare for given just one day.
But BYU has two perfect weapons to combat a zone: a guard with wonderful vision in Kyle Collinsworth and plenty of shooters to knock down shots—the Cougs have four guys with more than 40 threes on the season. So I'm picking the Cougars, but I do so with some hesitation because BYU is similar to last year's Creighton, which Baylor rolled in the tourney.
Arizona over Ohio State: The Buckeyes need D'Angelo Russell to go off to have a chance, and the Wildcats are as well-equipped to slow down a perimeter scorer as any team in the nation with shut-down defenders in T.J. McConnell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Ohio State will also have a hard time matching up with Arizona's size up front.
Round of 32, Midwest
Kentucky over Purdue: With two 7-footers in its rotation, Purdue actually has the size up front to match up with Kentucky. But the Boilermakers aren't as talented in the backcourt, nor do they have the three-point shooting (33.5 percent as a team) to knock off the 'Cats.
Maryland over Buffalo: Buffalo led both Kentucky and Wisconsin on the road at halftime this year, so this team won't be overwhelmed by the competition. But Maryland is going to be really tough to upset if senior wing Dez Wells is playing well, and he comes into the NCAAs averaging 18.1 points over his last nine games.
Notre Dame over Texas: Outside of Kentucky, there isn't a team that's harder to score against in the paint than Texas. Good news for the Irish is they can beat you from the perimeter.
Notre Dame is similar to Iowa State, which just beat UT on a last-second shot in the Big 12 tourney. This one could be close as well, but Notre Dame star guard Jerian Grant will make the plays down the stretch to get the win.
Wichita State over Kansas: Wichita State has the better backcourt and Kansas has the better frontcourt. One thing to watch in this game is the potential matchup of KU power forward Perry Ellis against WSU's small-ball 4 Evan Wessel. The two were high school teammates. Ellis is the one major mismatch in KU's favor, but he isn't exactly 100 percent right now after injuring his knee late in the year.
The Shockers are the most under-seeded team in the bracket, and this game is much closer to a coin flip than the seeds would suggest. If the Shockers are able to contain Ellis, they'll move on behind the steadiness of their backcourt.
Round of 32, South
Duke over St. John's: Duke needed a furious comeback to win at St. John's back in January for Mike Krzyzewski's 1,000th win. The Red Storm just happened to catch the Blue Devils at their most vulnerable time of the season. Don't expect a similar game this time around.
Utah over Eastern Washington: The Eagles spread the floor with shooters, and that will give a lot of big-school teams some issues. Utah, however, has guys at every position who are able to get out to the perimeter and guard, even 7'0" center Jakob Poeltl.
For the Eagles to have a chance, they need leading scorer Tyler Harvey to go off, which is how Oregon knocked off Utah twice recently. Joseph Young scored a combined 39 points in the two wins. Eastern Washington won't get that kind of production here, and the Utes will move on.
Iowa State over SMU: This could be a fun chess match with Fred Hoiberg going up against the legendary Larry Brown. The Mustangs' best chance is to pound the paint with Yanick Moreira and Markus Kennedy.
On the other end, SMU has not seen a talent like Georges Niang all season. Niang is playing excellent ball right now, and his ability to create for others and himself will be the difference in this game.
Gonzaga over Iowa: The Hawkeyes have the bodies and size up front to deal with Gonzaga's three-headed monster of Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis. But in the end, the Zags are more talented at just about every spot—Aaron White and Wiltjer would be the one coin flip. That's just too much talent for Iowa to overcome.
Sweet 16, East
North Carolina State over Northern Iowa: NC State is the more talented team. Northern Iowa is the better execution team. The reason I like the Wolfpack here is their ability to knock down threes and work out of ball screens. Wichita State gave UNI trouble with that in the regular-season finale win for WSU, and I like NC State to duplicate that strategy.
Virginia over Oklahoma: This was one of the toughest games to pick in the bracket. I had Oklahoma in the Final Four and then went back and switched my pick. The Sooners had their struggles in low-possession games when the opponent was able to slow the pace—see losses to Washington, Kansas State (twice) and at Baylor.
If the Sooners can force tempo, I like their chances. It's just really hard to do that against the Cavaliers, who rarely turn the ball over and aren't going to take bad shots that lead to run-outs.
Sweet 16, West
Wisconsin over North Carolina: Wisconsin is vulnerable against teams that can spread the floor and attack mismatches off the dribble. But that's just not North Carolina. The Heels rely on execution and crashing the offensive glass.
The Badgers have the size to combat the Heels' rebounding—Wisky is the fourth-best defensive rebounding team in the country, per KenPom.com. So if this game comes down to who can execute in the halfcourt better, Wisconsin will win.
Arizona over BYU: Two reasons to like the Wildcats in this game: Arizona has terrific perimeter defenders to deal with BYU's Kyle Collinsworth and Tyler Haws, and BYU is no match for Arizona's bigs, particularly the red-hot Brandon Ashley. Ashley is averaging 19.0 points per game in the month of March.
Sweet 16, Midwest
Kentucky over Maryland: This is the first scary game for the 'Cats, because the Terps are capable of beating elite teams. They knocked off Wisconsin and also have a neutral-court win over Iowa State.
But this is the first NCAA tourney appearance for the Terps under Mark Turgeon, and the Wildcats have multiple impact players who have been through this song and dance. Plus, they will essentially be playing a home game in Cleveland with the way Big Blue Nation travels.
Notre Dame over Wichita State: This would be such a fun matchup with two of the best backcourts in the country squaring off.
When you go up and down the lineups, it's close to a draw. The one major advantage goes to Notre Dame at the small-ball 4 spot, with Pat Connaughton clearly a more talented player than Evan Wessel. This feels like a toss-up, but the fact that the Irish can beat you from all five positions is why I like them to get by in a close game.
Sweet 16, South
Duke over Utah: If Utah gets its mojo back, this is a scary game for Duke. The Blue Devils have struggled to contain penetrating guards, and the Utes' Delon Wright is great off the dribble. Utah freshman Jakob Poeltl also has the size and defensive abilities to possibly give Jahlil Okafor some issues.
But when Utah has had its shot to knock off the big boys—a nonconference game against Kansas and two games against Arizona—the Utes haven't been up to the task. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, are used to playing in big games in big-time atmospheres.
Iowa State over Gonzaga: Kyle Wiltjer and Georges Niang are both really difficult players to match up with because of their versatility. However, neither is great on the defensive end. If I had to pick the harder guy to guard, it would be Niang because he's better off the bounce. And if I had to pick which player is not as much of a liability on defense, it would again be Niang. He gives more effort on defense, and he will have no trouble getting out to the perimeter to check Wiltjer.
Both of these teams have such talented scorers and execute their stuff so well that this game could come down to which coach makes better adjustments and who wins that Niang-Wiltjer battle. I'm going with Fred Hoiberg and Niang.
Elite Eight, East
Virginia over North Carolina State: These two teams played twice, and Virginia won both meetings—by 10 at home and by four on the road.
Now go ahead and throw those games out the window. At this point in the bracket, I like to ask myself which team I trust more to win four straight games. Obviously, I'm taking a gamble on NC State getting this far. The Cavaliers will have difficult games in the previous two rounds, but they are a team that I believe can win four straight games.
If you go against the grain, this is the region to do it. It's the most wide-open in my estimation. Villanova or Virginia are the safe picks. Oklahoma, Northern Iowa, Michigan State or even NC State would be good sleeper Final Four picks. I wouldn't be shocked by any of those four teams getting to Indy. I'm just being a wuss and playing it safe.
Elite Eight, West
Wisconsin over Arizona: This was a terrific game last year in the Elite Eight, as Wisconsin won 64-63. Let's say those two teams were evenly matched, and I believe they were.
Arizona is close to its own equal from a year ago. You swap out Nick Johnson for Stanley Johnson, which is close to a wash, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as a starter is almost as good as Aaron Gordon. But the 'Cats don't have anyone nearly as good as Hollis-Jefferson off the bench, and the slight improvements made by the rest of the rotation don't make up the difference.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, is on another level this season. The Badgers have upgraded by default at point guard with Bronson Koenig taking over for the injured Traevon Jackson. Over the last four games, Koenig is averaging 16 points and has made 12-of-22 threes. Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes have all improved, and Hayes as a starter is better than Ben Brust.
It's probably unfair that these teams are in the same region, because the Wildcats, in my estimation, are one of the four best teams in the country and the Badgers are the second-best team in America. Assuming the bracket plays out like I think it will, whichever team wins this game will give Kentucky its toughest test of the tournament.
Elite Eight, Midwest
Kentucky over Notre Dame: How do you beat Kentucky? Well, it's going to take a great passing and shooting team. You cannot just try to drive at UK's length and hope to score against those big boys in the paint.
Notre Dame is one of the best passing and shooting teams in the country.
The Irish have two wins over Duke, and they will not be intimidated. There's just one big issue: Size. The Irish struggled to contain Jahlil Okafor this year—he averaged 23.3 PPG in three games against ND—and they'll have a tough time checking Karl-Anthony Towns.
Notre Dame just won't be able to get enough stops to end UK's perfect season.
Elite Eight, South
Duke over Iowa State: This is one of two games that I went back and changed my pick after initially going with my gut. At first, I picked the Cyclones here.
But here's why I changed my pick: Mike Krzyzewski has shown a willingness to play Justise Winslow at the 4 when necessary, and this would be one of those games. Winslow at the 4 gives the Blue Devils the best shot at containing Georges Niang. Kansas made a similar move in the Big 12 championship, putting Wayne Selden and Kelly Oubre on Niang to try to disrupt his rhythm with some ball pressure.
Iowa State has an athletic center in Jameel McKay who could get under Jahlil Okafor's skin because of his quickness and length. But McKay just doesn't have the girth to check Okafor. The big fella will be able to overpower him.
Both teams have excellent point guards (Tyus Jones and Monte Morris) who show up in big games. Both teams have great three-point shooters at shooting guard (Naz Long and Quinn Cook). Both teams have good athletes on the wing. Both teams have the ultimate mismatches (Niang and Okafor).
Duke just has more of an answer for Niang than Iowa State has for Okafor. So I'm ignoring my initial gut pick and going with the Devils.
Final Four Game No. 1
Kentucky over Wisconsin: This is the national championship game that most impartial observers would like to see. These are the two best teams in the country. Wisconsin has a better shot than anyone to knock off Kentucky. We'll just have to settle for the Final Four.
As I've already written, it will take a great execution team that passes the ball well and can shoot from outside to at least challenge UK's defense. The Badgers have the best offense in the country with shooters at all five spots—even when they go to the bench—and Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes have the size and skill to actually score inside against UK.
The Badgers offense is the reason I believe they have a real chance. But their defense is the reason why I believe they'll lose.
Wisconsin has struggled to contain teams with multiple ball-handlers who can spread the floor and create off the dribble. That's how Michigan State nearly pulled the upset in the Big Ten championship. It's how Tyus Jones led Duke to the win over Wisconsin in December.
This means the Harrison twins (Aaron and Andrew) and Tyler Ulis will be the X-factors for the Wildcats. They need to be able to get into the paint and score or distribute. The Harrisons played their best ball in last season's tournament, and I think they'll do so again this year.